Good morning, California.

“San Francisco is unaffordable on so many levels,” Mayor London Breed at her inauguration this week, noting she has been a renter all her life. Perhaps that will change. The mayor’s annual salary: $335,996.

Legislature focuses on fire costs

Wine country fire aftermath.

Legislators are jumping into the policy issues sparked by last year’s fires and fire-related mudslides that destroyed 10,000 buildings and killed 66 people, CAlmatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports.

The basic issue: It comes down to money, and it will dominate the final month of the legislative session. Who should pay for the billions of dollars in damages that resulted from the loss of homes, businesses and lives, and who should pay for the fires of the future?

Pacific Gas & Electric, on the hook for damages because its power lines sparked some of the fires, hopes legislation will emerge that would give it relief from the costs of the 2017 fires, and shift liability costs for future fires.

What’s at stake: PG&E is threatened with bankruptcy and, without state help, ratepayers may bear much of the cost.

Rosenhall quotes Scott Wetch, an influential Sacramento lobbyist for electrical workers:

“One way or another, ratepayers are going to be part of the solution and it’s just a matter of what’s the venue: bankruptcy court or the state Legislature?”


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The law at the heart of fire cost question

Simi Valley fire.

Attorneys for the Legislature are casting doubt on lawmakers’ authority to relieve utilities of their liability for future wildfires caused by power lines.

The legal concept at issue is known as “inverse condemnation,” described by CALmatters Laurel Rosenhall as a fancy way of saying “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Courts have ruled that the state Constitution gives utilities the power to take private land for public use, and also have the responsibility to pay for damages caused by, say, downed power lines.

Enter the Legislative Counsel: The legislators’ lawyers said courts are the final arbiter of the Constitution and legislators cannot pass a mere statute that conflicts with a judicial interpretation of the Constitution. Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo County Democrat, asked for the opinion to determine whether lawmakers could alter inverse condemnation law.

It’s basic civics: Legislators can’t infringe on the court’s turf. And it’s the courts’ job interpret the Constitution.

What’s next: A two-house conference committee will be meeting soon to focus on past and future fires. One topic: what to do about inverse condemnation as it relates to damage caused by utilities’ action.

Pacific Gas & Electric Chief Executive Officer Geisha Williams has called for changes in the law. Counties, insurance companies and fire victims are lobbying to protect the law as it exists.

How the next governor will confront wildfires

Gavin Newsom and John Cox.

Gubernatorial rivals Gavin Newsom and John Cox agree California must do a better job of managing wildfires but differ on how to address the issue.

Democrat Newsom wants the state to be more aggressive in getting rid of dead trees and brush. Republican Cox proposes that the state allow more logging, and takes issue with firefighters’ salary and benefits.

See what they told CALmatters, in this video produced by our videographer Byrhonda Lyons.

Money matters: PG&E goes big

Pacific Gas & Electric Company has spent $2.7 million on California campaigns since the start of 2017.

Its donation includes $150,000 a week before the June 5 primary to help Democratic frontrunner Gavin Newsom get into the November runoff and $110,000 to the California Republican Party a month before the June 5 primary.

Those donations might seem outsized, in keeping with the major issues pending before the Legislature. But PG&E always spends big on state politicians.

In the 2015-16 election cycle, the state’s largest public utility spent $4.8 million on California campaigns and $5.1 million in the 2013-14 election cycle.

Prosecutors: Well-intended bill could ‘wreak havoc’

County district attorneys fear one piece of the newly adopted state budget will significantly limit their ability to prosecute people charged with serious and violent crimes.

The issue: Language is so broad in a budget-related bill that it seems to authorize defense attorneys to seek mental health assessments for virtually any client, including people facing murder or rape charges. And there’s no source of money to pay for the assessments.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan sent a detailed letter to Gov. Jerry Brown warning it would “wreak havoc in our criminal justice system.”

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson told me the language is too broad, but he sees potential to divert mentally ill people who commit crimes from prison into treatment.

“If the governor and the district attorneys and the courts and the behavioral health people get the details worked out, this could be a positive step forward.”

Why this happened: Brown and legislators increasingly use so-called trailer bills related to the budget to make significant policy changes. Often, they are rushed, and the policy is not subject to full hearings.

Next step: Representatives of the governor’s office, the California District Attorneys Association, the Department of State Hospitals and others are scheduled to meet on July 23.

The prosecutors’ goal: Fix the legislation so criminals are prosecuted and people with mental illness are treated.

 

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See you Monday.